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Way out of the ballpark: Former MVP hits Gillette

By CORY MATTESON
Star-Tribune staff writer

An apartment building on Dogwood Avenue in Gillette now sports new siding thanks to the company owned by former Major League baseball player Mo Vaughn. Photo by Laura Phagan, special to the Star-Tribune

Like many former American League MVPs, Mo Vaughn has never visited Gillette and didn't know where it was. Unlike many former American League MVPs, he's got a couple million reasons to make a trip there later this year.

After his baseball career ended prematurely in 2003, Vaughn helped launch a company that uses tax credits and government loans to help purchase and refurbish run-down affordable housing complexes in New York City. Through Omni New York LLC, tenants in Brooklyn, the Bronx and elsewhere have seen the transformation of ramshackle buildings without hot water from urban blight into city beacons.

Those successful renovations brought big New York newspaper headlines ("Going to bat for housing," "Mo better housing" and "Mo Mortgages," to name a few) and nationwide ambitions.

So with a series of big hits in ultra-urban areas, the company decided that the next logical choice for a multi-million dollar renovation project was ... Gillette?

If he were still a Major Leaguer, the difference might seem equivalent to if he started batting right-handed, with a golf club. But Vaughn said the Gillette renovation is part of a plan to spread out from the city to the states.

"There's a lot of area between New York City and Gillette, Wyoming, but the deal worked out well," Vaughn said from his Manhattan office.

The deal involved Omni America LLC, the national arm of Omni New York, purchasing Parkside Apartments, a 94-unit affordable housing complex in Gillette, and investing $2.7 million in a renovation project.

"It kind of fit the scope," Vaughn said. "We're not afraid to go anywhere and do our business."

Vaughn hasn't visited Wyoming yet, though fellow managing partner Gene Schneur toured Gillette last year before the deal was sealed.

"At first I kind of brushed it off," Schneur said when the Parkside deal was proposed. But then he took a good look at Gillette, and Gillette started to look really good.

Getting government funding for the renovations seemed plausible, because not many other developers in the state were applying for it. So Schneur and several other Omni reps flew into Gillette on a "prop plane," he said, and they began to analyze the town.

What he found in Gillette were some demographics that mirrored the Big Apple.

The vacancy numbers for houses and apartments in the energy-rich town hover at or below one percent -- the same as New York City, Schneur said.

According to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development statistics, the median income in energy-rich Campbell County equals about $70,000, Schneur said, or only about $2,000 less than the median income in the Big Apple.

The need for affordable housing in Gillette, Schneur learned, was on par with NYC.

"There's a housing boom on a much smaller scale," he said.

Schneur said he met with a Gillette police lieutenant, who told him that one of the city's most frequent crimes involved thieves breaking into unlocked cars and stealing stereos.

So Gillette residents don't need to practice their fuhgetaboutits just yet.

"Let's just say in New York we lock our cars," Schneur said.

Many of the New York projects, Schneur said, took place in some of the city's roughest neighborhoods, with voluminous histories of drugs and violence. The Parkside Apartments are located in the central part of Gillette by an elementary school and a city park.

"Gillette is actually kind of a welcome change," he said.

The renovation project began Feb. 1 and is about 30 to 40 percent complete, Schneur said. Tenants, who still live at Parkside as the work continues, can expect to see new roofs, new windows, new balconies, new carpet, new floors, new toilets, new cabinets, new kitchen appliances and more once the project wraps up in October or November, he said.

They can also expect to see Vaughn, who'll come out to see the finished product. He's since located Gillette on the map ("I'm pretty good geographically," he said), and is looking forward to setting foot in a new state.

He's not looking forward to how he might get to that new state.

"I don't want to get on that prop plane," he said, laughing.

Teresa Browen, who's lived at Parkside for nearly two years, said she'd never heard of Vaughn, who hit 328 home runs in his 12-year career, mostly with the Boston Red Sox. His picture used to hang on the wall inside the Parkside Apartments main office, until it was removed so a new coat of paint could be applied.

She said the new vinyl siding on the exterior of the four three-story buildings has been a big improvement. Browen, who is also a maintenance worker there, said she's happy that all the old kitchen stoves, refrigerators and hot water heaters are being replaced, because it means less late-night calls for her.

"They're like brand new," she said. "Uptown."

Contact reporter Cory Matteson at (307) 266-0589 or cory.matteson@casperstartribune.net.